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September 11, 2001: The Day My City Was Attacked By Terrorists

By Pee Air

On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, my life changed forever. The life of everyone I know changed forever. My city was attacked by terrorists.

Typing those words seems like a surrealist joke. It doesn't seem real. I can't comprehend the things I have witnessed with my own eyes in the last two days. I could have never imagined the things I have seen, except as a concept for a script for a conspiracy action movie. Now Tuesday, September 11, will live in the collective memory of the world forever. It will be marked in history books as the day when the United States was attacked by four hijacked planes, killing thousands of people. Here's how that day unfolded for me.

I woke up at 6 a.m. to go to work at Goldman Sachs at 85 Broad Street, just a few blocks from the World Trade Center. I was sitting in my office when I saw hundreds of pieces of paper fluttering down to the street. From where I sat, I couldn't see the Twin Towers. At first, I thought a politician had rented a blimp and had dropped thousands of leaflets on the city. The papers were all different shapes and sizes and I watched from the 24th floor as they serenely fluttered down to the streets and rooftops below. It was a beautiful end-of-summer day.

Then I heard one of the students in the training center say, "There's a fire in one of the Twin Towers!" I turned on the television in the control room and saw that the tower was on fire. Then a second one was on fire and people were talking about planes hitting the Twin Towers. Then things happened really fast. People were talking about terrorist attacks. I put CNN on the big projection screens in the classroom next door and turned up the volume. The newscaster mentioned two planes hitting the two Twin Towers. Everyone immediately knew something was drastically wrong. "They want us to evacuate the building!"

I grabbed my backpack and ran to the stairway. It was packed with people. I ran to another stairway and made my way down from the 24th floor. That descent was tense for me. I was trying to be calm. Everyone was walking in an orderly fashion, trying not to run or panic. Looking back on it now, I realize that, as Americans, we never expect that we are going to die. Americans do not die in terrorist attacks on Wall Street. But I was counting the floors; 19, 18, 17, 16, 15 ...

A girl in front of me stumbled and twisted her ankle. A group of bankers below me were talking about the airplanes, saying that the first one was on purpose, the second one was a mistake. I turned to a man next to me and said, "How do you fly a plane into the World Trade Center by mistake? It was an attack." We walked down, down, down. Finally I was out in the street. Everyone had their cell phones out but they were all blocked. I heard people saying, "Get away from the Stock Exchange." At this point it was obvious to everyone that the US was under attack.

I started to walk towards the water when I remembered my bike, locked up on Broad Street. I went back and got it, then rode to the waterside. The streets were packed with bankers, many of them sobbing and crying. I rode around looking for a pay phone. There were lines at every one; women crying, yelling, panicking. I rode over to 180 Maiden Lane to see if I could find my boss Erich Baker or any of my coworkers from that building. From there, I could clearly see the Towers burning. A massive crowd of bankers watched in disbelief, many crying. My survival instinct won over my curiosity and I rode to the South Street Seaport. There, a bar had the TV on. A crown of people watched in horror as the Towers burned. A man and woman next to me told me they had just left the 44th floor of one of the Towers. "We're lucky to be alive."

I rode my bike home amidst throngs of people walking east along South Street. Once home, I called Steffie. She was frantic with worry. I reassured her and then left an outgoing message on my answering machine telling everyone that I was okay. I took a picture of the Towers burning from my window, then went up on my roof. There was a crowd of my neighbors gathered on my roof, most with cameras. As we watched, the South Tower exploded and then collapsed. I could hear screams of horror and disbelief from every voice in Manhattan from my roof, less than a mile away from the Towers.

Realizing that something more destructive, violent and dangerous than I could imagine was going on, I went back to my apartment and sent out a mass email to all my family and friends saying I was alive and well. I said I had been working a few blocks from the Towers but that I had been able to evacuate and I was okay. Then my desire was to document history.

I got back on my bike with my camera and I began to ride around the city. I went up Canal Street and started taking pictures of the hundreds and thousands of people walking in a mass migration away from Wall Street.

At the corner of Canal and Catherine Slip, I stopped in a huge group of people and watched as the second tower fell. I took pictures of the horrified faces in the crowd around me.

My body felt slightly limp, I couldn't quite fathom what I was seeing. The sheer destructive magnitude of the event was beyond comprehension. I don't think humans can react appropriately to such event, because it surpasses the capacity for fear, compassion or anger. Basically the brain shuts down, and one begins to live and function as if one is an actor in a movie.

As I write this on Thursday, September 13, at 12:30 a.m. (Friday morning), I am still functioning in that dream state, that unreal, non-reactive reality. I think it is a function of self-preservation on one hand, and on the other I have seen this in films and on TV as a fiction so many times that I am prepared and trained to deal with it that way.

So I rode my bike all around the city - through Chinatown, up to Little Italy, through the East Village, around Soho, over to Canal Street, photographing people against the backdrop of this burning, destroyed monument. I made a huge loop. Then the police started to block off the streets below Canal and I rode back east on Canal. At the river, I saw an exodus of thousands of pedestrians crossing the bridge towards Brooklyn.

When I got home again, I had calls from Alexi and Steffie who were worried that I had been too close to the Towers when they crumbled. We decided to all meet at Washington Square Park. We were all shell-shocked and in need of each other's company. I went to the park and saw two of my dearest friends and immediately hugged and kissed them. We were alive. We knew that life had changed forever. We knew that thousands of people would be dead on this day. It was a beautiful, sparkling day - the birds were singing. How could so much death and destruction be happening a few blocks away?

We went back to Mike's house in the blazing sun. Heather and Georgine came home and Alexi decided to walk back to Harlem. The rest of us went to Heather's friend Nadine's house on 9th and C to have a drink on the roof and try to relax. There was nothing else to do. Unfortunately, I was having an allergic reaction to something in the air and I could barely breathe. Steffie and I had one beer on the roof with the smoke rising into the sky a few miles away, then we walked home. We heard that all airports in the nation had been shut down but then we heard a roar in the sky. We looked up and there was a military fighter jet above us.

At Delancey Street there was a roadblock. I showed my ID and we went past. We got to my place and took a shower. We felt helpless and exhausted. As we looked out of my window, we could see the smoking remains of the wreckage going into the sky and we felt violated. We turned on the TV and we only had two channels left, 2 and 11. The rest were based on the top of the Twin Towers and they had been knocked out.

That night we decided to go meet everyone somewhere for a drink. We did not want to be at home, staring out my window at the burning wreckage where the towers had once stood.

We left the house at about 8 p.m. that night, and my neighborhood was like a police state. There were roadblocks on every major street and no cars around. We walked over to a restaurant to meet Kristin and Mike and eat but it was closed. We ended up going to 7A and having dinner. Every conversation was about the attack. The air was bad and we were exhausted. We rode home past the checkpoint at Delancey where we had to show ID to get by. At home from my window, I could still see the smoke rising from my window into the night sky, lit by the bright hurricane lamps.

Wednesday, September 12, 2001.

I went to meet my friend Mike in the East Village. My first goal was to buy a New York Times but since all of Manhattan was closed below 14th Street, there was no way for the delivery trucks to deliver papers in my neighborhood. We had breakfast then walked uptown past 14th to try to find a newspaper. We walked over to Union Square and met Marshall. All the newspapers were sold out everywhere. We decided to go to a bar where there was a TV and watch the news. There was a strange feeling of chaos, almost an excitement in the air mixed with sadness. This was a completely different city.

We went to Mike's house on 10th and A. On CNN, the reporters were trying to make sense of the events. We felt powerless and confused. We didn't know what to do, where to go. We decided to try to give blood. We walked by a big mural that had already been painted by Chico on the corner of Avenue A and 14th Street. People were lighting candles and crying.

Then we walked past the roadblock on 14th Street to Union Square again and saw that the memorial had grown. There were now reporters milling around. I saw a group of Israeli and Arab students arguing about the state of world affairs. It was heated and emotional, but civilized.

My overall impression was that New Yorkers have been a mixed bag of cultural and ethnic heritages for a long time. We have learned how to get along, how to air out our differences, how to yell and scream at each other but basically get along. I realized that this is what makes America great. It also reinforces the stupid brutality of this act of terrorism. Whoever targeted New York for destruction was targeting a sample of every cultural and ethnic group of the world, including Arabs, Jews, Christians, atheists, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Satan worshippers, idiots, heads of industry, vandals, perverts, fathers, mothers, scientists, religious fanatics and stoned slackers. New York is not America - New York is the world.

We walked to a hospital on 17th and 1st Avenue. There was a big crowd of people trying to donate blood and being turned away. There was a list stating all the parameters for giving blood.

You may not give blood if:
You are a man and you have had sex with another man since 1977.
You have sniffed cocaine in the last 12 months.
You have ever used intravenous drugs.
You have had sex with anyone in the above categories.
You have a tattoo.

There was a big fat man standing in the crowd, loudly making comments about how ridiculously strict these guidelines were. I chimed in that this would exclude most of the population of New York. Then I asked a nurse about the blood supply and she said they had plenty of blood. She said New York was having a blood supply shortage before but that this was a good thing. She also hinted at the fact that there were not many wounded people being brought into the hospital. Most of the people found at the scene were dead. This theme would be echoed many times later on.

We decided to go have a drink and find a bar with a television. We were emotionally drained. We had no jobs to go to, nothing we could do. On television, they were saying that there were too many volunteers. We went to 7A and drank beer and discussed what was going on. The residents of the East Village were all in shock, tired, numb. There was an overall sense that something terrible was going to happen.

George Bush had made a speech that morning and it reinforced everyone's mistrust and dislike for our accidental leader. He quoted the Bible, used a bunch of clichés and platitudes and ended his speech with "God Bless America."

The reason why we are in this mess in the first place is that nations align themselves with religious ideology. If we want to be truly evolved and lead the world into a new era, we have to truly outlaw the mix of religion and politics. We should be tolerant and accepting of all religious expression as long as it is not destructive or oppressive to a group of people or gender, but the government has absolutely no business proclaiming its alignment with a religious belief. George Bush has to stop quoting the Bible and saying "God Bless America." It offends me and it is not helping the situation.

In the days following the first speech, Bush made some better speeches and showed his compassion but also his determination to get revenge and go to war. This is not the answer. The nation's renewed patriotic fervor is helpful for dealing with grief and for unifying the nation but it is also dangerous. We can't give George Bush carte blanche to lead us into war as a nation. He has not really earned our trust or our respect. Just because he put his arm around an old firefighter and wore a casual shirt at the site of the explosion doesn't mean he's no longer a rich frat boy oil baron from Texas who singlehandedly made our budget surplus disappear.

Night fell on the city.

I decided I had to go nearer to the site. I could see the bright lights illuminating the smoke, and I wanted to see what was happening in this oldest neighborhood of New Amsterdam where I work.

I said goodbye to my friends and rode my bike home. I borrowed a Swiss press pass from my roommate Frank who works for a Swiss press agency. I cut out a picture of myself from a Melomane poster and stuck it over Frank's photo. To complete the disguise, I put on Frank's Swiss Army watch. I was ready. I was a Swiss journalist.

I was drawn to the crash site with a mixture of horror and fascination. Less than a mile away from my home is the scene of one of the worst disasters to ever occur on American soil. I could smell the smoke and see the eerie glow from my kitchen window. I had to go closer. I hope that I do not offend anyone who may be reading this who may have lost someone close to them. I meant no disrespect by going to the attack site. I just needed to see it.

I rode my bike along South Street and parked it at about Catherine Slip. The street was crowded with police cars, ambulances, garbage trucks and all kinds of military vehicles. I was able to walk west along the water without being stopped. I walked straight ahead as if I belonged there. The smoke was pretty thick and it was hard to breathe. I managed to get all the way up to Maiden Lane without being questioned by any policemen.

At 180 Maiden Lane, the Goldman Sachs building where I sometimes work, I started to realize just how bizarre the scene was. The entire lobby of the building had been turned into a military camp. There were men in camouflage laying on every square inch of the floor of this posh wall Street building. At first I was horrified, thinking these were dead bodies strewn around. As I crossed South Street and took a closer look, I saw they were soldiers. It was here that the first soldier stopped me and asked for ID. I put on a French accent and told him I was a Swiss journalist. "No press allowed." I walked further west and then cut up Old Slip.

I began walking along the deserted streets of the Wall Street area. Words can not describe how eerie it was. A fine layer of dust made everything white, like after a snowstorm.

Every time I saw policemen, I either turned down another street or showed my bogus pass. Some seemed to believe it, others made me turn around. I was able to get closer and closer to Ground Zero this way. I found a worker with a truck full of supplies and asked him for a face mask. I put it on and it was harder to breathe but cleaner.

Eventually I ended up on Broadway. There was a massive conglomeration of rescue workers, policemen, military personnel, doctors and nurses.

I turned a corner and I could see the wreckage. My heart was pounding and I was slightly hyperventilating. I felt like I had stumbled upon a spaceship or the last living dinosaur. It was the site of a heavily guarded secret and the entire world's focus was here.

I took one last picture of this terrible sculpture and walked away. I hate to say this but it was almost beautiful. The stark lighting and the smoke everywhere made it look like a movie set. In fact, that is how this whole thing felt - like a movie. As a person raised in the comfort and safety of the West, I have never been exposed to this kind of calculated destruction except in films. That is my only frame of reference. We have been raised not to react to the pictures and videos of destruction and misery we see on the news. It happens in other places, not here. The reason we don't react to it is because we are partially responsible for the wars and struggles going on around the world. Our government supports systems and leaders who wage wars in other parts of the world. Our government supported Osama bin Laden in his holy war against Russia.

Now we must mourn the innocent victims of this tragedy and we must try to put an end to terrorism, but we must also use this as a learning experience to try to understand why the current balance of power on earth would motivate a group of fanatics to such extreme acts of violence. I don't believe violence is the answer. I believe humanity must evolve out of violence. One major priority is to outlaw the combination of religion and politics. When military decisions are made in the name of a religion, mass violence occurs. According to our Constitution, church and state must be separate. Let's try to keep it that way. No ideal is worth killing innocent people. Wouldn't it be great if the US started a new trend in foreign policy and didn't go to war over this? I think we should try to find out who did this and bring them to justice but I hope that we don't have to kill innocent civilians to do it.

On Thursday, September 13, we walked around the city again and took more pictures. The Seurat mural on Pine Street looked strangely perfect in this artificial winter. We managed to make our way down to West Street, just south of the disaster site. Workers in white suits with crazy multicolored gas masks made us feel like we were on the surface of the moon.

All of a sudden, hundreds of workers started running towards us. "A building is falling, run!" We ran away as smoke filled the air. It turned out to be a false alarm. It was reported on CBS that night that a building was falling, then it was retracted. One of the craziest things about this whole thing is the rumors that were circulating in the press and in the city in the days after the attack.

In the meantime, things at Union Square had gotten weirder. Hundreds and thousands of people were gathered to mourn and sing and talk and pray. A talking Lady Liberty was getting a lot of attention from the tourists. She was describing her experience of the attack and lecturing on peace and freedom.

I finally went back to work at 85 Broad, about 6 blocks from the site, on Thursday, September 20. Wall Street had basically become a military zone. There were soldiers and police everywhere. You had to show your ID at every checkpoint. In my building, they set up an X-ray machine to check bags and posted a bomb-sniffing dog with a policeman.

Iit has been 3 weeks since all of this has happened. The United States is still trying to find Osama bin Laden in the deserts of Afghanistan. I am pleasantly surprised by the way we have handled this. We are trying to drive bin Laden out, forcing the Taliban to realize how powerless it is against us. The people of Afghanistan seem to be turning against the Taliban, fleeing in droves to Pakistan.

Everywhere I go, people are talking about politics and history. People who were never concerned with the political machinations of the rest of the world are now well-versed in world affairs. That is a good sign. I'm sorry that it took the senseless murder of over 5,000 people to make Americans aware that we are not the center of the universe, but it was a lesson that we badly needed to learn. Now that Americans are aware of this, let's try to make something positive out of this terrible waste and learn how to coexist with all of the people on the planet.

For more of Pee Air's photos, go to:

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Last modified on Wednesday, March 26, 2008

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